Like any freshman, my first few months of high school have been both exciting and stressful. My friendships have grown stronger, my classes are in full swing and I have begun many extracurricular activities. Naturally, this brings a new level of anxiety to my day to day experiences. I know I am not the only freshman feeling this way, but I want to explain what that feels like for me as an Autistic student. I think it is important to explain nuances and challenges that I believe are attributed to being Autistic, and where I think there can be societal improvements that would probably help everyone.
I am no stranger to stress and anxiety. In middle school I began to experience panic attacks due to stress. I found my thoughts racing in a new way, and it was hard for me to control. Now in high school, I find that I have more stress but I am better prepared to manage it; that means my panic attacks are decreasing. At the beginning of this year, when I felt my anxiety rising, I started tracking my panic attacks. I learned a lot. I was having more panic attacks, but they were not as severe as they used to be. In middle school, my panic attacks could last from 1-2 hours. Now they are much shorter. One of the best lessons I have learned is to recognize patterns and triggers. Certain days and classes are more stressful than others, and I have developed strategies for these times.
I recognize that my approach to managing my stress and panic attacks is directly related to the fact that I am Autistic. Like many on the spectrum, I like order and predictability. Luckily, I have a knack for organization. My homework queue is full of rankings and numbers – I have set up a pseudo-mathematical system to figure out what to do when and where. For example, last Wednesday writing this blog post was at number 2 on my list of priorities, while right now it is at number 7; tomorrow it will likely be at number 4.
As I have analyzed my panic attacks, I’ve learned that they can be grouped into two categories: “build-ups” and “triggers”. “Build-ups” tend to be on stressful days when I have little downtime and a lot of classes. Triggers can happen at any moment, like something that reminds me of my late father or a sudden test I wasn’t prepared for. As I have a panic attack, there are certain things I experience that a lot of non-autistic folks also experience. I hyperventilate sometimes, or my mind might be racing. I have irrational thoughts, “Should I leave this class to calm down and risk an F?” This ties back to the comfort I find in predictability. I’ve “solved” this by developing three action plans for how I handle things.
Scenario One: Middle of the Day
Sometimes I can get a panic attack in the middle of a class and I know I have more classes coming. These are usually “build-up” panic attacks, so they can be caused by a variety of factors. How I handle these depends on the severity and what class I am in. When the panic attack begins, I first try to calm myself down by drinking some water. If that doesn’t work, I step out of class for a minute so I can take a break from the stressor. If that doesn’t work, I ask for help by going to the school psychologist or my grade-level dean.
Scenario Two: Beginning of the Day
Surprisingly, the most common time for me to get a panic attack is during the first hour of the school day. I am usually still tired, and I have a 70 minute period. Teachers may give out longer assignments or I may see some school news that stresses me out. I’ve learned that it is during this time that I am most vulnerable to what I call “what if-ism” – where I wonder about the amount of homework I might get in a day and then begin to worry about how I will complete it. Most of the time I try to push aside these thoughts and focus on my Teffilot (prayers), which occur right after my first period. But if I can’t, I use the techniques from Scenario One.
Scenario Three: Close to Down Time
This occurs when I have been successful at holding myself together during class while I bide my time until I have a moment to pull myself together. I am more successful masking my emotions if I feel panic close to lunch, study hall or the end of the day. Unfortunately, this scenario is rare, happening only once so far this school year.
Something else I have learned this year is that I am less anxious when I am doing things I really enjoy. For example, I love to read. I average about an hour and a half of reading each day on the bus. Recently I connected the positive effect this has on my mental health on school days. Reading in the morning allows me to warm my brain up for learning. Reading in the afternoon allows me to cool or slow down while keeping my brain active for the homework I will have to do when I get home.
I am very lucky to have already met some nice friends, and I truly enjoy getting to have lunch with them every day. I have joined many extracurriculars, both at school, like the school newspaper, and outside, like USY, and taking a class with Tikvah Online Academy. I have also begun reading Torah at my synagogue more regularly. It was challenging to figure out how to balance everything at first, but I have established a consistent schedule. Being Autistic, I find this very reassuring.
I know stress will always be an issue for me and for others but I don’t feel as hopeless as I used to feel now that I understand more about myself, and I have met and worked with so many supportive people in my community. I have learned over the years to be comfortable asking for and accepting help. In particular I want to thank Dr. Ilana (Kustanowitz) at Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County for teaching me strategies that I still use today, as did Mrs. Telem, Mrs. Teicher, and Mrs. Tal. I have been talking to my psychologist Dr. Gaydos since Kindergarten (wow!), and I feel very comfortable with her. At The Leffell School, I have developed relationships with Dr. Blank, Mrs. Mazo and other faculty who I know are there for me. I also have to mention my family and friends, specifically my mom who has always supported me.
So I leave you with this message: Even if you are not Autistic, if you are stressed or anxious, it is important to find a peer, friend, teacher or administrator in your school who you are comfortable speaking with. There is always someone willing to help you. And you should also be ready to be that friend who supports others. It is through collective action that we help our community and ourselves. I’ll talk to you again (March 15) about travel, the unexpected moments of life, and reflections on my Jewish and Autistic identity as I hopefully visit Israel.